Picks: Average Fare
Shooter. Dir. Antoine Fuqua. I’m sorry, but a big mistake is made in this film. If we are going to get the wall-to-wall action sequences, then we have to get something more in return. I would put it this way: make sure that I understand my main character (in this case the Mark Wahlberg character) in some specific ways. Give me some details about his life and his behaviors. Give him some idiosyncrasies. Give him some pattern of behavior that reveals his character and values. Individuate this guy! But in this case I got none of the above. I got a mechanical man, another Terminator II, another Die Hard hero, another Rambo rip-off. I got sick of the phony details regarding home-made surgeries and sugar IVs. The film follows a kind of template for these movies: we see the back story (Wahlberg and another Marine facing enemies abroad), then the Pitch (someone shows up and makes Wahlberg an offer he can’t refuse, then the Betrayal (he finds out he was used by the bad government guys, and then the Escape (he gets away from everyone, and only a super hero could do that), and then the Revenge (he begins to chip away at the bad guys), and then the second Betrayal (just when he thinks he is in control, he is undercut again), and then the second great Escape, and then the Settling of the Matter (a talky scene in Washington), and then the Follow Through (last scene). Having written that, I realize why the film did not work for me. It too literally followed the formula. Each element was ticked off, but the formula—and not the character—had the priority here. I was also bored by the evil characters in the film. Danny Glover can act; but here he was a simple pasteboard cut-out. And the worst of it was the last scene in the film, a kind of revenge fantasy that gives all the wrong messages to young people about how to deal with their problems. It reminds me of the mentality we are dealing with these days—the thought that armies can resolve political problems. But I happen to believe that armies are supposed to win wars, and politicians (and we hope, statesman) are supposed to settle political conflicts. In other words, a film like this idealizes what it means to be a man. We like our men as strong, silent, tough, impervious to bullets and able to defend himself against untold numbers of enemies, who knows martial arts like he knows how to breathe, who doesn’t really need anyone (except on the field of battle), and who has absolutely no vulnerabilities. But the point is that people are interesting when they reveal what makes them vulnerable. This film was clueless when it came to that insight into human nature. Another convention in this kind of film is the travelogue theme. The hero, shot twice, jump starts a car and drives cross country from Washington, D.C., to Eastern Kentucky—just like that. No problem. The guy’s a regular super hero! Let’s face it. That’s what we want to see—super heroes. They cut through the crap. They take the law into their own hands. They don’t put up with any guff. They get the girl. They never miss. They love their horse (or in this case, their dog—one of the great lines is: “You don’t understand. They killed my dog.”). Now Wahlberg has the screen presence to pull this off; and I often enjoyed watching him moving through time and space and letting his adrenaline keep him moving day and night. He has the talent; but I am suggesting that his talent was not well employed in this film. He was given nothing to do but grimace, strain, glare, react, and kill. And kill and kill and kill. Memo to screenwriters: shooting people at a distance lacks compelling drama. Now you see the person; now the person fall over dead. Not exactly like watching hand-to-hand combat. I’ll take three rounds of Rocky Balboa to all the killing spread throughout this film.
The Simpsons Movie. Watching this film affirmed for me why I have stopped watching the Simpsons (TV version). What has killed the television program is unbelievable and outrageous plotting. I remember buying two years’ worth of programs from years 4 and 5. Year 4 must have been one of the good years, because I was tired of the program by year 5. Here is what I would have liked to have seen: create a 4-part film, based loosely on the structure of the 30-minute television program (which is actually 23-25 minutes, I suppose, once you subtract commercials). Each segment would have led to a continuation of the overall plot (“to be continued. . .” –see this film version for that inside joke). In doing so, each segment would have featured 4-5 of the main characters from the overall series, such as Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Apu, the Police Chief, Mayor Quimby, the evil sisters, Principal Skinner). I longed to see more of the characters with more in-depth story lines. Instead, I got an outrageous plot about Homer’s becoming enamored of a pig, a dome being placed over Springfield, the Simpson’s escape from a lynch mob, the Simpsons off to Alaska, and then a third-rate climax with Homer coming to the inept rescue one more time. Boring! There were some great highlights: the Itchy and Sratchy segment, Homer in the theater, Marge and Homer’s sexual liaison assisted by Walt Disney archetypes, the Inuit woman, Tom Hanks at the Grand Canyon, the dream sequence montage, Marge’s home video, Homer and the wrecking ball (between a rock and a hard place), and perhaps a few others I have neglected to mention. But here’s a bitter truth for you: I’m tired of Bart Simpson. He bores me. I’m not tired of Homer, but I am sorely tired of the repetition in all of the plots, especially of how Homer restores cracks in the familial piety after making an ass out of himself. I’m tired of the sentimental streak that lifts up its supposed family values theme, when in all honesty Homer would never have the ability to rescue anyone from anything. He is an incompetent boor. The biggest laugh I had in the film was during the wrecking ball sequence. But I get tired of the plotting: poor Bart feels abused and alienated, so he checks out the family life of the Flanders’ clan as a respite from his father’s boorishness. Poor Marge becomes exasperated with Homer, and yet at the end she is all gushy about how much she cares for her man. One critic said the film reminded him of a 90-minute version of one of the television episodes. I agree, and therein lies the rub. One of the annual television events for Simpsons’ watchers is the Halloween episode. Now I could have accepted that sort of approach for the film—perhaps a Christmas story, or a summer camp story, or a Simpson vacation story, or a Simpsons-move-to-the-new-town story, or the Homer-runs-for-mayor story, or the something-or-other story that would have involved more of the characters and allowed the writers to create multiple highlights (that is, set pieces) within the overall plot.
Superbad. Dir. Greg Mottola. The Judd Apatow juggernaut continues apace. If this film had been made in the 1960s, one of the characters, Seth (as in writer, Seth Rogan?) would not have such a major role. That clueless foul-mouthed and bullying young man would have had a background role for sure in that film from the 1960s. But the nice guy, Evan (as in writer, Evan Goldberg?) would have been the main character all the way. He is the sensitive young man, the guy that ends up with the girl and has three or four kids and gets a job and contributes to society and is known as a good man and who retires from the firm at 62 and enjoys 20 years as a grandfather and never accomplishes too awful much in life but is remembered fondly for having made a difference in some people’s lives. But there is no such obituary for the Seth character; after all, he is the guy that nice guys had to survive when they were adolescents. I was one of those nice guys, and I knew the Seth guys, and I’m sorry to say but they were all losers and I survived them and joined the other Evans of the world in contributing something to the rest of society. Now if it sounds like I was not interested in the Seth character, you’re right. Within the first 15 minutes of the film I wanted to write that guy right out of the screenplay. He was a boor. He was a jerk. He was a loser. Unfortunately, he was also an alpha male in the group of three friends (Fogell making the third.) Now Fogell was an invention, an act of the imagination. Seth was a brute; Fogell was an inspiration. He was a self-made man; a figment of his own imagination, a creation of art, and if the film had been more about him than it was about Seth, then I would have been a happy viewer. Instead, the last scene of the film closes with a reaction shot of Seth as he looks back toward his beloved friend Evan and moves tentatively into the Brave New World where he has to stand on his own and can no longer rely on that alpha male nonsense. In short, when this film was good—at least to me—it was good when Evan was featured and when Fogell was featured. Take out Seth and you have something to savor. And what about the two dumb cops—one of them played by Seth Rogan, of course. (So that gives us an adult version of Seth as well as a teenaged version of Seth. Double the boorishiness.) So we are to forgive the boorish and immature behavior of the cops because they knew all along that Fogell was not 21 years old? They were acting dumb because they wanted to give him a good time because they knew what it was like to be 18 and not be able to party!? There is a law of literature that you can’t have it both ways: that means that you can’t create irreconcilable characterizations because viewers will feel betrayed by having watched one set of behaviors and made judgments about characters based upon those behaviors. Then if the writer walks in and says, “Oh, no, I was just kidding here. They are really good guys. They were just having a little fun,” viewers like me will say, “You can’t have it both ways.” The cops were jerks. The cops were losers. The cops were boors.
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. Dir. Jay Russell. This film showed—early on—the promise of a children’s classic. And then it degenerated into action for the sake of action and finally it goes awry with an excessive of CGI. Here’s a tip to the filmmakers out there: stick with the people. They are three-dimensional, mysterious, capable of surprise, and reliably REAL. CGI (Computer Graphic Interface) effects should be employed sparingly in order to add to—rather than subtract from—the content of the film. But back to that early section of the film. The first scene cleverly introduced us to the child, played wonderfully by Alex Etel. A simple use of POV/reaction as she sits on the shore and imagines going into the water and swimming away—but he can’t because he is terrified of the water. Now right there you know that a classic children’s tale would have contained a pay-off scene with the boy learning to swim. In this case, obviously, the water horse would have taught the boy to swim, perhaps letting him ride on its fin, and that scene would have been splendid because the water horse, surprised that another water horse could not swim (naturally a water horse would look at the boy as another water horse), would have shown maternal instincts and helped the boy accomplish that feat. But wait: that’s another film. That whole premise is ruined in this film when our boy rides on the NECK of the water, never falls off, and goes down with the water horse into the depths of the sea—just because the CGI artists said that it could be done. Look! We can make him go on a wild ride, just like every film for children is supposed to do! Look! Another wild ride at the latest theme park! Isn’t that what the children want! Sorry, but that approach was downright boring in this case. In fact, I have just identified the scene in which this film changes from an enchanting and classic children’s tale to one where special effects dominate over the human interaction. Before this change point, the story was enchanting because the boy has a real relationship with another creature. I thought about the boy in Spielberg’s ET. Both boys discovered something by themselves, and in a central tenet of children’s stories, each boy had something of his own, not something given to him by the adult world. Now he was responsible for something. The closest parallel would be when a boy or girl gets the first puppy to take care of. But in the context of this film, or of ET, add the idea of secrecy to the mix and you have a lot more fun. (By the way, the ET connection was played up in an early scene that looked a lot like a typical extra-terrestrial first-contact moment in the potting shed). So in the early scenes the boy has to hide the creature from the adult world. The last person to find out has to be his mother. Now we’re talking children’s literature! Then a mysterious stranger shows up on the property—a new handyman—and that adds to the mix. So far so good. I can forgive the obligatory chase scene in the house between the little beastie and the ugly bulldog (but I don’t forgive the second chase scene because of its excess), and I suppose I can forgive that the mother is a two-dimensional character and that the handyman’s secret is not particularly surprising. But I did not understand why the screenwriter had to manipulate the character of the officer in charge of the troops that are billeted at the estate. And then there is the excess of slapstick in the chase scenes and then the film breaks apart just when it could get interesting. Here’s the deal: when the creature is fully grown, and safely ensconced in Loch Ness, there has to be a new first contact between the boy and the water horse. But think for a minute of how you might imagine that first contact. The boy cannot swim (so why would he take a small rowboat out into the middle of the loch to find his beastie?), and the water horse doesn’t know the boy cannot swim. Go ahead and imagine that scene, and then think for a minute about a creative (or lack of creative) decision made by the director and the CGI animators. They told the director what they could do with their special effects, and he loved everything they said. But one thing he didn’t think of was that less is more. That was the lesson of Alien, a lesson thrown out in the two films that followed that classic horror film. The more we saw the water horse, the less impact he had upon the viewer. And even worse, the animators did everything in their power to humanize the facial expressions of the water horse so that he looked like any number of CGI dogs or cats that have been created in any number of contemporary films. Now MY water horse would not be anthropomorphized (humanized)—it would be a magnificent water horse, and although it would remember me from our first contact, it would not widen its eyes and twitch its eyebrows and ears and act like a silly puppy wanting to please me. It would respect me, it would remember me, but it would not cry for me. Let the audience put the emotion into the creature rather than having the creature express every emotion with excessive sentiment. As a last complaint, I marveled at how long this kid could hold his breath under water—as remain aboard the creature’s neck. All for the sake of catering to the lowest common denominator. Oh, isn’t the beastie cute? Isn’t he sweet? Isn’t he loving? There’s a reason the mythology refers to a creature as The Loch Ness Monster and not the Loch Less Beastie. A few days later I saw I Am Legend and had the same response. Look what happens when CGI goes awry.